What Would Palau Do?

by John Hocevar

February 17, 2016

The story of a small island nation trying to protect its ocean from foreign tuna fleets.

Illegal Tuna Transshipment in Palau

A Philippine tuna fishing vessel in Palauan waters in 2012.

© Alex Hofford / Greenpeace

The tuna industry has spiraled out of control.

Despite the efforts of island nations like Palau to protect the waters that sustain their communities, indifference from foreign fishing fleets and powerful markets around the world — including the United States and Europe — allows the plunder to continue. The latest story in Ian Urbina’s New York Times Outlaw Ocean series on destructive and unlawful fishing shows just how far the tuna industry needs to go to clean up its act.  

Tuna vessels’ use of indiscriminate fishing methods are decimating tuna stocks and putting sharks and sea turtles at risk of extinction. The industry also continues to show a sickening disrespect toward its own workers, holding them at sea for months or even years at a time with unfair wages. The conditions on board many of these vessels are inhumane and unacceptable.

The tuna industry is responsible for a large portion of the estimated 100 million sharks killed by the fishing industry each year. No one knows just how widespread shark finning is on tuna vessels because they often operate without proper oversight on the high seas. The latest New York Times story details the bust of a Taiwanese tuna longliner by Palau authorities with hundreds of shark fins hidden on board. It is only unusual because it was actually caught.

The vessels that feed the shark fin trade are often the same vessels that supply canned tuna to stores across the U.S. and around the world.

The U.S. government has tightened regulations around seafood imports and by the end of 2016, seafood businesses will be required to improve traceability for tuna and other “high risk” products. Many supermarket chains and food service companies are starting to make progress. However, most have only addressed tainted seafood sold under their own brands. Some of the worst seafood, such as the tuna sold under Thai Union’s Chicken of the Sea brand, continues to appear on the shelves of Walmart, Kroger and other retail giants. If you or anyone you know buys canned tuna, check out our guide to see which brands are doing their part, and which are not.

The good news is there are practical and achievable solutions available, many of which are actively promoted by the governments of Palau and others. Setting science-based catch limits for tuna is an obvious starting point. Networks of marine sanctuaries can help protect biodiversity and rebuild fish populations. Phasing out the use of destructive fishing gear, such as Fish Aggregating Devices and irresponsible longlines, will reduce bycatch of threatened species and increase value for fishing communities. Mandating observer coverage and ending the practice of transshipment at sea can help seafood businesses say with confidence that they know where their fish came from and how it was caught.  

These changes are entirely possible when consumers demand change. Together, we can make sure that 2016 is the year that we clean up the tuna industry.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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